Rudiments of Singing Gregorian Chant
  • Greetings; I am wondering when it is permissible to sing vibrato, harmony within the context of singing Gregorian Chant. For example when singing "Jesu, Dulcis Memoria"; Ave, Maria; Alleluia and Tract or Psalm; and "Puer natus in Bethlehem". Also, I'm hearing someone sing Gregorian Chant Melodies (Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei) who uses diphthongs as well as seeming to "overpronounce" the consanants. Is this permissible? We are trying to learn some rudimentary hymns in Gregorian Chant and would like to know the true way.

    Thank you.

    George from Massachusetts
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  • Welcome to the forum, George. I'm glad to hear there are others here in MA learning the song of the Church.

    There is a Latin pronunciation guide in the Liber Usualis (pages xxxv-xxxix). (If you don't have a copy at hand, you can download a PDF version from this page).

    If your singers follow that guide, they will be following the standard Roman pronunciation of church Latin, and they'll learn to avoid using American-sounding diphthong vowels.

    How vigorously to pronounce the consonants is something that your group leader will have to judge based on the acoustics of the church where you'll be singing.
  • 1) Vibrato - is never good (except under the most unique circumstances, which you are not likey to encounter). In nearly all western sacred music vibrato is antithetical to the sacred choral sound which we cultivate. In addition, it is in quite bad taste.

    2) Harmony - there are some forms of 'harmony' which can be utilised in chant performance that are part and parcel of its evolution. (Needless to say, these forms do not include normal 4 part harmony as we understand it in our culture.) While accepting without reservation that chant is an inherently monodic, purely melodic and unaccompanied form, there are ways of 'ornamenting' it which are not foreign to its formative and evolutionary stages. These would be the knowledgeable addition of an ison (drone) to some chants; too, the knowledgeable addition of organum, which can be very simple parallel 5ths or 4ths and 8ves, or more elaborate organum which utilises other intervals, and some contrary motion.

    3) Faburden, Fauxbourdon and Discant - methods of ornamenting chant which can be put most simply as singing against the melody in parallel 6ths and 3rds. This manner of performance was often applied to psalm tones, but could be applied to other chants as well.

    4) Diction - Both qualities within a diphthong should be distinctively pronounced, saving, though, the second quality until the last moment of the syllable's life. All vowels should be formed with a mind to make them as rich and constant in quality as possible for the full number of beats, pulses and pitches assigned to them. The consonant should be as distinct and as heard as possible at the last moment of a syllable's life; or, in the case of a consonant at the beginning of a word, it, too, has the honour of clearly and distinctively defining the new life of a new word.

    5) Overpronouncing - you mention this. It does happen, but one really, really has to work awfully hard to actually be overpronouncing. One has, of course, witnessed (very seldomly) real overpronouncing that was actually just a not very artful attempt at practicing good diction. As a rule, it isn't something you should probably be concerned with. Good diction while singing is, in fact, overpronouncing in comparision to normal spoken language. If you can actually hear t's and p's at the ends of the words of your singers, it is because they are overpronouncing, and in having done so have made their sung language just barely discernable to the hearers. Never be afraid of this. Teach it and insist on it.

    6) An extra - 'accompaniment' - I mention this because you say you are just starting out. So, I hope greatly that you start out right. There are widely divergent views about 'accompanied' chant on this forum. I will state mine, and point out that it is consonant with the best chant scholarship of our time. Chant, as was mentioned above (no. 1) is inherently a monodic (single melody line only) genre. There is no harmony or accompaniment inherent to or implied in its nature. Never use chant 'accompaniments'. Get started off on the right foot and learn not to rely on accompaniments which inevitably draw attention to themselves by their very presence and destroy the unfettered rhythm and pristine monody which is the glory of chant, and impose upon it an harmonic structure (whether modal or tonal) which is antithetical to its nature. I have taught chant for many years in a variety of settings and have never once used an organ or other keyboard instrument... not even for so much as to give a pitch. One teaches chant by singing it because it is a purely vocal genre. My students have never failed to learn and learn well by this paedagogical method.

    (You are so fortunate to be in Massachusetts and not Houston. Is it still snowing up there?)
    Thanked by 2CHGiffen georgel1943
  • Is it still snowing up there?

    Is this in jest? We just had a winter that wasn't. The average temperature for the Boston Marathon is 47 degrees; this year it came close to hitting 90. Pansies planted last June are blooming!
    Thanked by 3Gavin marajoy CHGiffen
  • George, there is one area of 'overpronunciation' that I find odd, which one can hear in the chanting of many French speakers. It is the use of a schwa ('uh') after a final consonant in order to not 'break' the sound. For instance, fiat lux rendered as fee-at-uh looks-uh. I do believe that it is an attempt to make distinct final consonants, which tend to not be pronounced at all in French unless elided. (My pastor, an American who speaks French fluently and who often visited Fomgombault before and after learning to offer the EF, does this when reading or chanting in Latin quickly, but not when moving more slowly, as does a French priest who visits us from time to time. I do not think my pastor realizes it and I wouldn't dream of pointing it out to him.)

    I only point it out as something you may hear in recordings that is unnecessary for a good flow of Latin words. Also, when listening to recordings, do note that several language groups have their own versions of ecclesiastical Latin pronunciation (e.g., German, French, British English speakers, among others).

    Then there's always the vowel I think of as the sheep-bleat [aaa as in naa-naa-naa-naa-naaaaa-naaaaa] which is not an acceptable vowel according to the rules given in the Liber et al, but which appears in French chanting as well. My schola has had several native Southerners for whom that vowel sound is the 'normal' ah vowel, and early in our history I was constantly having to point it out in order to correct it--so much so that eventually all I had to do was cross my eyes to have them grinning and correcting it. Then one day I was driving along and I put a new CD from one of the French abbeys in my CD player--Easter chants--and nearly drove off the road laughing so hard at the first words: Saaaalve feste dies, with the French a-circumflex that is their version of the 'sheep-bleat'. My comeuppance!

    I always say that we are trying to sing in Latin so well that no one pegs us as Americans. But I am certain that our attempts, influenced by regional pronunciations of English that still sneak in, are odd to singers with other native languages, both those who have their own native-language versions of 'good' Latin pronunciation and those who try for the official ecclesiastical Latin!

  • To add to this commentary -

    Of the many Latin pronunctiation traps to fall into as English speakers, the one I find most often easily overlooked is the pronunciation of "in" even by less-than-amateur choral singers / chanters.

    In Latin it is "een" not "inn."
    Thanked by 1Ragueneau
  • I prefer to think of the pronunciation of "in" as like the German word "ihn" - getting away from the American tendency to pronounce a double-e "ee" as a diphthong in which the mouth broadens almost to a smile and flattens and nasalizes the sound inappropriately.

    The biggest problem for American speakers of a language such as Latin (and other languages) is the apparent way that Americanese embraced the "great vowel shift" by turning almost every vowel into a diphthong in pronunciation: Dep as "deh-ee-oo-wu" *shudder*. Second to this is the schwah'ization of so many weak vowels, which may be appropriate in modern colloquial speech but it out of place in singing or proper oratory: It's not "buhneath" or "duhcision" or "kingdum" or "wisdum frum on high" *shudder again*
    Thanked by 1MarkThompson
  • CHGiffen,

    I happen to agree with you on the proliferation of diphthongs. I don't find this so much in the places I've worked, but I know of what you are speaking, and if that were to happen, I might make the same recommendation you are.

    I must however disagree with you with reference to the schwa. In English singing, proper use of the schwa (following the guidelines in Madeleine Marshall's Singer's Manual of English Diction to which I am obviously partial), helps add an extra dimension of shaping beyond the phrasing of the music. To my taste, a group that can phrase strong and weak vowels/syllables in the context of the over-arching musical phrase creates a wonderfully multi-faceted artistic experience. The proper use of schwas helps all syllables in a phrase of text from sounding more-or-less equal.

    Of course, for this to happen the schwa must be formed correctly and be a forward sound through rounded lips, much like a French schwa - and never swallowed or from the back. Also, I will add, for words starting with be- or de- (like your examples "beneath" and "decision") Ms. Marshall advocates the use of "ih" rather than a schwa. At the opposite end of the spectrum, singing "bee-neath" or "dee-cision" overemphasized these relatively less important syllables.

    And to be clear, no kind of schwa is ever appropriate in Latin.
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • SkirpR

    I'm not saying the schwah shouldn't be used, but rather that it is too often overused or improperly used, as in the "dih-cision" (correct) versus "duh-cision" (wrong) for the word "decision". I also happen to believe that if, say, one is singing a work whose text is English of a former time (eg. it has "Thee" or "Thou" or "hast", etc.), then the schwah'ization should be even less than it normally would be. Thus there are contexts in which, say, "the" in "the rose" should be pronouced as "theh" (and the "r" in "rose" flipped) and not "thuh"   but then I come from an early music practice. :)
  • I also happen to believe that if, say, one is singing a work whose text is English of a former time (eg. it has "Thee" or "Thou" or "hast", etc.), then the schwah'ization should be even less than it normally would be.


    As I'm maturing, I'm finding I tend to agree with this particular practice more and more. It must be part of the aging process!
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • Thanks, all, for the advice. In the "accompanied" Chant is it permissible to let the organ play the notes "in the background" (inaudible to the congregation but not to the choir)?

    To all who asked; no it is not snowing still (it was 80 degrees F) yesterday, the buds are coming and the flowers and veggies are starting to grow. Tomorrow it will be Summer (Ha!).

    Have another question. Lately I have been watching EWTN's Mass on TV and the Cantor seems to not realize that the Chapel is extremely small and he sings at the top of his voice. I am not attempting to be critical; it just seems he might tone down a little. He uses vibrato a lot. How should I address this with the Network? Thanks, I do not want to be overly critical.

  • There's a substantial tradition of organ accompaniment with chant, so feel free to have no accompaniment, or audible accompaniment as you like. The organ collection Nova Organi Harmonia has complete accompaniments for everything in the Liber Usualis: that is, Mass ordinary and proper parts, and Vespers.
  • If one keeps a forward moving tempo without pushing the voice, vibrato should not be an issue in chant. What I mean is, there is no time for it. Notes of length can be articulated with tasteful repercussion. Observing relatively equal note lengths makes no room for vibrato. The line is always moving.
  • What MCW said. I'm all for the elimination of distracting vibrato, but let's remember that most of us work with amateurs, and an over-emphasis among them on straight tone can lead to vocal problems.
  • Re: The schwa.

    Madeline Marshall, author of A Singer's Manual of English Diction,, what taught singers' diction at Juilliard for many years, insisted that schwas be sung as schwas. Most choir directors I have encountered have railed, "It's JUHrusalem, not JEHrusalem."

    I must admit, however, that schwas don't work in chant melismata or even in certain comparatively short neumes.
  • Schwas in English seem to vary depending on region and class. But it seems to me that, when one has a plausible choice between schwa and non-schwa pronunciations, one should choose the non-schwa, for color and word distinction. In particular, "evil" is a much more, well, evil word than "evul". Do we have an obligation to reflect everyday speech, even when it's the result of compounded laziness?
  • OK, what does one do when when pronounces Miserere nobis as MMMMyisierierrrre NNNNyobbbyis? This is also very inconsistent.
  • To be sure. I'd wonder if they were trying to sneakily eat German chocolate cake while they were chanting...
  • @JeffreyQuick... Actually, "evil" was one of Ms. Marshall's exceptions... she insists it should be pronounced "evihl" for the very reasons you state.

    I also wouldn't be so quick to call everyday speech compounded laziness. I really can't believe there's truly "fault" or "blame" in the development of language. It's been happening for millenia.

    I can't help but agree with Marshall, though, if the schwa exists in German and especially French, and is sung in those languages, why should we avoid it so in English.

    Of course, schwas don't work in Latin chant. They might in English chant. Depends on how affected you want to sound (in either direction).
  • I don't mean laziness in a personal, morally culpable sense, but in a cultural sense. Languages tend to devolve more than evolve, particularly grammatically. Consider Latin vs. most modern languages. Compare Dutch to Afrikaans, or Parisian vs. Cajun French.
    Thanked by 2CHGiffen georgel1943
  • Or contemporary Americanese vs. turn of the (20th) century English.
  • George, that's an unusual circumstance you cite that causes me to wonder if some pedantical aesthete too zealously emPHAsized the voiced consonant theory with those "m and n's." The only benefit to awareness of the voiced consonant resides in pitch intonation. It would seem to me that with "miserere nobis" that the sibilant "s" is problem one, the avoidance of the schwah after that, two, the deadly combination of an onset "r" tied to a dipthong'd "e" followed by a closing "r" and another dipthong, a.k.a. "mih-s/zuh-ray-ray, or worse "mih-zuh-rare-ray" with the spectacular plunge into Know-bihsssssssssss, might be the more common ailment.
    Thanked by 2georgel1943 Mairi
  • although chant unacompanied is its pure original form, accompaniments can be very beautiful. a well known and pristine work is the N.O.H. which can be downloaded from corpus christi watershed.
    Thanked by 1georgel1943
  • I don't mean laziness in a personal, morally culpable sense, but in a cultural sense. Languages tend to devolve more than evolve, particularly grammatically. Consider Latin vs. most modern languages. Compare Dutch to Afrikaans, or Parisian vs. Cajun French.


    If it's such a natural force, then fighting it with one choral performance seems like trying to change the boundaries of the ocean with a single bucket and shovel.

    While I have nothing against Latin linguistically - and I'm not a linguist (and I assume none of us are), I would hesitate to objectively say that it was the pinnacle of human language and every subsequent language is on a downhill slope from there!
  • the sibilant "s" is problem one


    Actually, according to memory (so I may well be wrong), I seem to remember a quasi-official guide to pronouncing ecclesiastical Latin recommends that intervocallic "s" (an "s" between two vowels) NOT turn into a "z"...

    As much as this might help with legato and pitch in the short-term, long-term we all gotta take the training wheels off sometime...
    Thanked by 1georgel1943
  • I would respond to M. Jackson Osborne's April 14th post - item 5) Overpronuncing; while I agree that if you can hear consonants like t's and p's is acceptable. The scale of the space indicates some backing off from pronouncing m's and n's "to death" as if these are the only consonants that exist - as I find that it distracts from the purpose of sacred choral music; i.e., the worship of God. I hope I am not being overly critical but I find it personally distracting to the music AND the words. Listening to professional choruses and choral ensembles produce the opposite effect that the "overpronunciation" is balanced to the environment and is consistent.
  • Umnnhhh...."overpronunciation", seems to me, is a matter of subjective perception.

    We must remember that the text (the Word) is primary. Thus, our effort should be directed toward clarity of the text (Word,) and we must work within a given acoustic chamber.

    Now and then, recording the choir's efforts (from different parts of the church) may be helpful. One adjusts accordingly.
    Thanked by 1georgel1943
  • dad29, my gripe is that the chapel is quite small -- 10 pew rows on each side, and that the enunciation/pronunciation is overdone for the size of the chapel. And it is inconsistent. The enunciation would be appropriate for a basilica or cathedral the size of -- say, Santa Maria Maggiore or Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The choir of the BNSIC enunciates everything consistently and tastefully - not some here and some there. "Moderation in all things." should be our motto.
  • not sure if this is the place to ask this question but here goes ... can someone explain how to determine the mode of a particular piece of chant? many thanks!
  • lynnm,
    In most cases, you'll see a number - Arabic or Roman - at the beginning of a chant. This number - from 1-8 - would indicate the mode. Otherwise, you can usually look at the pitch of the last note of a chant. - re for 1-2, mi for 3-4, fa for 5-6, sol for 7-8. However, you will sometimes find that a chant has been transposed to fit it more conveniently on the 4-line staff. Also, sometimes a chant will change mode in midstream. A musician would know more about that.
    Thanked by 1lynnm
  • WGS,
    Many thanks! The problem comes when there is no tone number - chant that has been copied by hand or some years ago. We will just have to persevere!
  • M. Jackson Osborn said:

    Get started off on the right foot and learn not to rely on accompaniments which inevitably draw attention to themselves by their very presence and destroy the unfettered rhythm and pristine monody which is the glory of chant, and impose upon it an harmonic structure (whether modal or tonal) which is antithetical to its nature.

    I can see where you're coming from, but I feel there are other perspectives here. If your considerations are purely musical, I can see some justification for what you propose, but the main purpose of why we sing chant is liturgical (not musical) and this needs to be absolutely central to any consideration on whether it can be accompanied or not. I'm not suggested Propers should be accompanied (they don't need to be), but the situation is different when we come to the Ordinary - which the Church wishes the congregation to sing. If one finds organ accompaniment of the Ordinary assists congregational singing of it, and that depends entirely on the specific parish, then it should be employed, because the accompaniment would then provide a valuable liturgical role in helping the congregation pray the Mass. Is that not the bottom line here as opposed to these purely musical considerations e.g. about how imposing harmonies "pollutes" the chant etc? - that sort of discussion seems more apt for musicologists (and perhaps blogs such as this) but is really a distraction to the liturgical role chant plays.